McKinzie Lives Up to His Name on Derby Trail

Bob Baffert, McKinzie, and his owners in the Sham Stakes winner's circle. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to this week’s edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.

Each week in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.

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In this week’s story we’ll look at the joy and frustration that can come from naming a horse after someone.

It’s hardly surprising that winning a Kentucky Derby prep along the lines of the Sham Stakes is meaningful to Bob Baffert.

Yet on Saturday, when the Hall of Fame trainer sent out an undefeated 3-year-old colt in the Sham and was rewarded with a decisive victory, there was some added satisfaction from an unusual source.

It was all about the name game.

The winner of the Sham was a son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense who was named after a special person in Baffert’s life. The horse, McKinzie, bears the name of the late Brad McKinzie, a longtime friend of Baffert and an executive at Los Alamitos who passed away in August.

The Sham was McKinzie’s third win in as many starts – albeit one came via a controversial disqualification – and positioned him as another in an extremely long list of Triple Crown candidates in Baffert’s illustrious career. McKinzie may or may not be able to handle a mile and a quarter, yet he has the kind of sentimental appeal that lasts for years, much less miles.

“It’s really nice to see a horse you name after someone so important to you turn out to be such a nice horse; it’s great,” said Karl Watson, who owns McKinzie along with Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. “Bob picked the right one to name (after Brad McKinzie), that’s for sure.”

Baffert was indeed on target with his choice of a horse named after his friend, but more times than not good intentions go awry.

Since horses are named before their racing career starts, there’s no telling if a well-intentioned gesture winds up with a happy ending. The hope is for a stakes winner, but sometimes the end result is a claimer or a perennial maiden.

The ultimate success story was Frankel, who was named by Juddmonte Farms after the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel. That son of Galileo won all 14 of his starts and is regarded as Europe’s best horse in decades.

Then again, Jeter, named for New York Yankees star Derek Jeter is a 9-year-old gelding (ouch!) who has eight wins in 68 career starts for an ugly batting average of .117.

Syndergaard, named for the Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, was promising at 2, missing by a nose in the Grade 1 Champagne. Yet last year, his 3-year-old season was similar to the pitcher’s injury-marred season. Syndergaard, the horse, was winless in three starts.

Racing writers and personalities have also been treated to namesakes on the racetrack. Owner Mike Repole gave a son of Uncle Mo the name Blewitt, after Jason Blewitt, a simulcast analyst at Gulfstream Park and for the New York Racing Association prior to that. Blewitt won his debut, then lost by a neck in his second start on Dec. 23 and could have a bright future.

That’s much better than poor Haskin, named for BloodHorse columnist Steve Haskin. He has raced three times and finished seventh three times.

All of which shows that much like the horses when they break from the starting gate, there’s no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to naming a horse.

That’s why Saturday was such a rewarding day for Bob Baffert as well as anyone else who has ever played horse racing’s name game.

The Also-Eligible List

Here are some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

McKinzie shines in Sham

Mask makes it look easy in Mucho Macho Man

Betting on U.S. races increases for third straight year

Gun Runner heads up Eclipse Award finalists

Tim Ritvo lays out substantial changes for Santa Anita

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